Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
Acts 7:55-60, John 14:1-14
Today Jesus is saying goodbye to the disciples. Our reading is just a small part of Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples in which he washed their feet, exposed Judas’s betrayal, and foretells of Peters three-fold denial before the cock crows. He even tells them that he is leaving and they cannot go where he is going. Amongst all this denial, betrayal, and loss, the disciples have to be anxious much as family members are after the death of their loved one.
Many of us probably find today’s Gospel to be familiar because it is one of the more popular choices to read at funerals. Its popularity could be from the way the passage speaks directly to Christ being with us in our next life; preparing for our arrival whether sooner or later. We find much comfort in th
ese words and this is what Christ’s intent was for his disciples as well. He is offering them some stability in which to ground their faith.
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” This is a foundational sentence. When we turn our lives, both in trouble and in joy, to God through Christ we find the way to the Father. This is what Jesus is telling his disciples. In many respects, this isn’t new information or even a new idea and like so many instances the disciples or Thomas, in this case, takes Jesus’s words all too literally. We don’t know the way! We don’t even know where you are going! You can almost feel their apprehension and Jesus offers them words of comfort again. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.” This statement isn’t meant to be an interrogation. Do you know me or not? Nor is it a litmus test as we see it often used today. As a New Testament scholar says, when read in Greek, this is a conditional phrase of fact. “If you know me (and you do), you will know my father also.” (1)
This is a statement of faith not question. When reading this verse we are not asking ourselves or each other, “Do you know Jesus?” We are placing our faith in Jesus and know that through him we see and know the Father. It can be difficult not to hear Jesus’ words in such a literal way. Literal interpretation has been an issue for Christians even from the beginning and we see it in this passage a second time. Phillip has a question. “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied?” Seeing the Father isn’t what is important. Jesus even says we can’t see the Father. Knowing the Father is what we need to do and we know the Father by knowing Christ. “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” Jesus says, “but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” Jesus goes on to say that anyone who believes in him will do the same and even greater works that he has done.
So many of us were on board with what Jesus was saying. We understand how Christ is the direct image of God. But this last bit seems to put a damper on things. Many of us have faith. We believe in Jesus the Christ. Yet we have not done miraculous works like he has done, let alone greater than Jesus. As the Rev. Elisabeth Johnson says, “Jesus promises to be with us through the power of the Spirit, to work in and through us to accomplish his purposes in the world. This does not necessarily happen in easily visible, spectacular ways. Yet wherever there is healing, reconciling, life-giving work happening, this is the work of God. Wherever there is life in abundance, this is Jesus’ presence in our midst.” (2)
Maybe this is how St. Stephen, the first martyr, fits into this picture. Stephen was a deacon in the early movement of Christianity. He is teaching people in the way of Christ and some of the Jews are upset by what he is saying. Stephen finds himself speaking to a council based on the false testimony of others. In the end of a long discourse, Stephen points out how they have a history of opposing the Holy Spirit by persecuting the prophets. At these words Stephen is stoned.
We get drawn into the person of Stephen and the parallels of his death with Christ’s, but there is another person to look at and that is Saul. The people involved in the stoning are taking off their coats and putting them at the feet of Saul, also a witness to this execution. This young man Saul was not a nice guy either. He proclaims himself to be a zealous persecutor of the Christians. As we know, possibly just a few years after this incident, Saul has an experience which converts him from being the persecutor to the seemingly number one Christian evangelist. Saul becomes Paul who writes many of the books of the New Testament. I wonder if in watching this violence against Stephen, who held up so much faith, an impression was made on the young Paul. Was being a witness to Stephen; or was being a witness to a person acting like a Christian, the catalyst of Saul’s conversion to Paul? We don’t have the answer to this but I think it had to affect him somehow.
I don’t think Stephens death was in God’s plan. I don’t think this is how God wanted Stephen’s life to turn out; to be cut down so early in his life and ministry. But through Stephen’s faith and devotion to God, untimely his death led to God’s continuing plan. God’s plan was to make himself known to all people through his son Jesus. Stephen was spreading this good news and somehow it continued in Stephens’s death through Paul.
When we are acting like Christians in the world, we make impressions on other people. There is a story of Alan, a manager at a fast food restaurant. Alan was recently promoted to the senior manager position because the previous manager was forced to resign. There was a lot of turmoil in the restaurant. Customer complaints, complaints from corporate, even the other employees were unhappy. Day after day Alan tried to smooth things out on all sides and many days he felt like he was getting nowhere. One of the new hires, after about a month, came up to Alan and said, “You must be a Christian?” Alan was taken aback. “Why do you ask,” he said. “Because I’ve been watching you, and you always keep you cool. I’m a Christian and I hope I would handle myself as well as you do.” Alan never really thought about this before. He always thought this was just his personality and never realized how his faith shown through to what others saw of him. But at that point, Alan thanked God for this gift; for being able to be such a model for others.
These are the typical miracles that God works through us. Through our faith, we can tell others of our experiences and through our actions, people can see that we are living out our lives authentically. This is what is meant by saying “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
1) Elisabeth Johnson, Professor at Lutheran Institute of Theology. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3238
2) Elisabeth Johnson, Professor at Lutheran Institute of Theology. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3238